Since the 1920s, Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia has helped immigrants and refugees arriving in America start productive lives in their new home. From picking up families from the airport and getting them settled, to helping them navigate school enrollment, acquiring State IDs, English language classes, and job placement, NSC has served as an anchor for tens of thousands of newcomers.
The immigrants and refugees that NSC works with have come from all over the world – from Vietnam, Burma, and Bhutan, Ukraine and Ethiopia, and a recent influx of Syrians and people from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of them, said NSC volunteer coordinator, Pablo Baeza, are people who’ve fled war and religious or political persecution in their homelands. Some are survivors of torture and trauma. All seek a safe home to raise their families and live in peace.
Unfortunately, the current Administration’s unsupportive stance on immigration has changed the pace of NSC’s work. “Before Inauguration Day, we had 71 people arrive in January alone,” Baeza said. But the number of arrivals has since dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, some families that expected loved ones to arrive shortly after they did have been gravely disappointed.
Baeza said NSC has always relied on “an army of volunteers” to support their work. “They help us meet our clients’ basic needs and take some of the load off our caseworkers,” he said. Repair the World: Philadelphia has partnered with them on several initiatives, helping to recruit volunteers for events and programs, and welcoming families with home cooked meals. Recently, Repair the World coordinated a non-perishable food drive of spices, beans, and canned goods, and engaged volunteers in writing welcome cards to leave in new families’ homes.
Since the arrival of the current Administration, NSC has seen a tremendous outpouring of support. “We’ve had volunteer applications double on a week-by-week basis,” Baeza said. “We’ve received so many clothing donations, we were able to bundle up some and send them to a refugee camp in Lebanon.” The greatest challenge, he said, is figuring out how to best utilize the influx of volunteers as the shape of NSC’s work changes.
The immediate needs that come with settling a large number of refugees and immigrants have slowed. So NSC is shifting focus toward education and advocacy as well as direct service – creating trainings and opportunities for volunteers to become advocates for refugee issues within their communities, and encouraging them to call their representatives.
“We are working on a volunteer program for NSC social media ambassadors,” Baeza said. Volunteers will get educated around the current changing landscape of immigration and learn how to publicly support refugee issues across social media.
No matter how the political climate shifts, NSC will press on in its work of supporting newcomers to Philadelphia. “These are challenging times,” Baeza said. “But the silver lining is increased awareness and support for immigrants and refugees on the ground. There are many ways to be an ally.”